Giller Reading Day 3: Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

Untitled designWhen Us Conductors was published in April 2014, it was a book with a lot of buzz. A number of my book loving pals raved on and on about how wonderful the book was and until now, I didn’t understand it, mostly because (in full disclosure), I had no idea what a theremin was or how it worked. After a quick YouTube search and a chat with a friend for further clarification, I finally took the plunge and dipped into Sean Michaels book. Like Paula McLain’s depictions of Hadley Richardson in The Paris Wife and Tanis Rideout’s fictional account of George Mallory in Above All ThingsSean Michaels creates an elaborate semi-fictional story of the man that invented the theremin, Lev Termen.

I’ve never written a story about another person, hell, I’ve never written my own story (other than the one my elementary school teachers made me write) about another persons life, but it seems like it would be really difficult. It’s a real talent to add such detail and description to someone’s life, especially when you’ve never met the person you’re writing about. Here’s a quote found on page 24,

My box of tricks was not a deception, simply physics. And yet the mission in Europe was to tantalize, plant sees, dangle hooks. All these foreign entrepreneurs, seduced by theremin: What would they trade for a share?

This is just one example how Sean Michaels paints a picture of Lev Termen’s life. The thread throughout the novel is the love and admiration he has for Clara Reisenberg, a young violin turned theremin player he meets in New York City in the 1930s. Often referring to her directly in the writing, we hop around in the text from his childhood in Leningrad to New York and then back to the scientific camps in the Soviet Union. His fame and success in the US quickly drys up and he’s forced to find alternative routes to survive in New York. All his problems dissipate when he’s “snatched” in the middle of the night and imprisoned on a ship where he’s told to play the role of log keeper. Not knowing what’s going to happen when he steps off the ship, the reader, along with Lev experiences the horrors of taking a plea bargain for a scrum of food. I think the description of the book explains it perfectly when it says, “Us Conductors is a book of longing and electricity” (source)

Not only was this novel smart and well researched, it was like unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It had EVERYTHING. History, music, romance, suspense, war and more. It’s one of those books that you can put into anyone’s hands and they’ll be guaranteed to call you up after they’ve finished reading to thank you for gifting them such a great read. In my humble opinion, I think it has really good odds in the Giller Prize running.

Be sure to come back to the blog tomorrow when I’ll be sharing my thoughts on The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill. 

The Scotiabank Giller Prize Winner will be announced on CBC Television on Monday, November 10 at 9 p.m. (9:30 NT).

AND if you love singing out loud to No Diggity while celebrating books, I urge you to head out to your local Giller Light Bash. Parties will be taking place across the country in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Regina, Winnipeg and Halifax. Be sure to check out


4 thoughts on “Giller Reading Day 3: Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

  1. Naomi says:

    My friend read this one a while ago and liked it, but when I read the description on the cover it didn’t sound like my type of book. But your description of it has changed my mind. For some reason I was thinking it was obscure, but instead it just sounds like a good story! On the list it goes!

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